Rule Barring Olim with Aids Stirs Controversy in Israel

If Israel’s Interior Ministry has its way, people like David Stein (not his real name) will no longer be allowed to make aliyah.

Stein, an American who immigrated to Israel a few years ago, is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Under a controversial set of regulations formulated by the Interior Ministry, HIV carriers from developed countries will be barred from settling in Israel.

In addition, visitors who stay for more than three months will be required to take a test to detect infection with HIV.

Immigrants from countries in distress, such as Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, will still enjoy free entry on the grounds that their lives could be in danger in their native countries.

The issue of whether to bar potential olim infected with HIV has been making headlines for almost two weeks now, ever since a reporter on army radio broke the story. The subject is being debated on the opinion pages of daily newspapers and in coffeehouses throughout the country.

Though the controversy is new, the regulations are not. Drafted by the Interior Ministry back in August 1991, they took effect in April 1992 – at least on paper, according to David Efrati, who heads the ministry’s Population Registry.

“Back then, Interior Ministry officials, with the backing of the Health and Absorption ministries, wrote to aliyah emissaries in developed countries and advised them of the new rules.”

“At the same time, we sent all aliyah personnel updated medical forms that, for the first time, included questions related to AIDS. Any person from a non- distressed country who wishes to make aliyah must declare that he is not infected with the HIV virus,” Efrati said.

“If he is found to be infected, either through his own admission or from a physical examination, he will not be allowed into Israel.”

The controversy, which prompted a special Knesset hearing on the subject last week, has stunned Interior Ministry officials, who find themselves on the defensive.

“First of all, the regulations aren’t new,” said a ministry spokesman. “They were issued in August 1991, and implemented in April 1992. Where was the public outcry back then?”

“Second, the Law of Return explicitly states that any potential immigrant can be denied entry if he is deemed a health risk to the population at large,” said the spokesman.

“The regulations are intended to safeguard the health of Israeli citizens – no more, no less.”

While most Israelis laud the ministry’s intention of limiting the number of AIDS cases in Israel, few seem to support its method.

“The ministry is going about this all wrong,” said Dr. Shlomo Ma’ayan, director of Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center’s AIDS Clinic.

“There is no reason to single out a relatively small number of people, such as olim, and not to test the 1 million tourists who come on an annual basis, who can also spread the disease,” he said.

“It also makes no sense to test visitors only after they have been here more than three months. If anything, young people who visit on a short-term basis tend to have a greater number of casual sexual encounters than those who plan to stay a while.”

The ministry, said Ma’ayan, “is missing the real cause of AIDS in Israel: Israelis who travel abroad and bring the disease back with them.”

“According to the Health Ministry, there are at least 2,000 HIV carriers in Israel, including 230 reported cases of full-blown AIDS and nearly 1,000 official HIV carriers. That’s a large enough nucleus to serve as a continuous infection,” he said.

If anything, said Ma’ayan, “the regulations will make the situation worse, not better. By linking AIDS with immigrants, young people will think that the disease isn’t a problem within the Israeli community.

“And anyone who suspects he has AIDS might not want to be tested, fearing that he, like visitors, could be thrown out of the country,” he said. “The bottom line, is we need better education on the subject.”

That is a view shared by Serge Dajches, director of the Israel AIDS Task Force.

“There is no real educational program to teach people here about the danger of AIDS and ways to prevent it. But first, we must openly declare that there is an AIDS problem in Israel,” he said.

“It’s ironic,” said Dajches, “but this whole Interior Ministry controversy may actually do some good toward raising AIDS awareness in this country.”

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